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Letters From London

Vexed in the City

London is constantly changing—surviving bombs, rebuilding flats—so what’s there to hold onto when even the subway map’s an abstraction? Our longtime Londoner may notice only what’s missing, but his son sees the city for the very first time.

There are several Londons, a set of different cities rippling out from a central point, layering and overlapping as they go. There are the Londons of the imagination, fictional or cinematic cities, and the towns where people live and work—many interpretations, yet rarely the same place. At times, some districts slip seamlessly into each other, helped by the shifty cartography of the city’s more creative realtors, while other boundaries remain fixed and immutable, hard lines on the map that also show a social divide on the ground. In particular, the 20th- century penchant for razing and rebuilding has redrawn large swaths of the city in the modernist idiom, striking out centuries-old street patterns in places, while abutting classic terraces in others. Old and new, large and small, rich and poor still sit cheek-by-jowl, in a relationship that isn’t always harmonious. In London, you can make your own city, choosing which overlaps suit and which do not, imposing your own boundaries and no-go areas, your own favored vistas, routes, and neighborhoods. Perhaps this is the same for any city; yet, although, the modern metropolis is typically characterized by its relentless pace—be it Asian, American, African, or European—London’s constant shifting isn’t especially comparable to an all-hours construction site, spotlit in the tropical night, or to the bobbing masses, compressed into abstraction by a telephoto viewpoint. It’s not even symbolized by sprawling street markets—although it has a few—or the rigid grandeur of historical sites. No, London is about zones and spaces, perceptions and projections, places, not people.

As new parents, we see yet another perspective of the city. At the start, we walked a lot, pushing a pram and then a stroller through winter streets and then a slowly budding spring, as motion provided near-perfect conditions for our son’s precious sleep. Our parents reminisced about the soothing nature of driving, and how they had lulled us to sleep night after night by driving around London’s suburbs or country lanes. It’s out of the question, now, of course; the traffic rarely lets up, and the speed bumps preclude drifting gently along darkened residential streets. So we walked, gradually extending our reach, fighting against the modern city’s remarkable insularity by uncovering nearby places that had remained unknown.

This was once a city that could be mapped by the simple act of walking. Phyllis Pearsall, creator of London’s iconic A-Z series of street maps, famously walked the city’s 23,000 streets to collate her first edition; its descendants are still sold today. Now the city is being re-mapped by walkers, this time clutching highly accurate GPS units in an attempt to deliver free mapping data into the public domain. Geographical accuracy faces an uphill battle, for modern London has evolved into a city of diagrams and matrixes, the situation on the ground abstracted from familiar shapes, thanks to the absence of a well-defined street grid and public transport’s rigorously simplistic mapping. The confusingly kinked banks of the River Thames wind through the center, skewing the important psychological divide of north and south and confusing the us-versus-them situation that informs everything from late night cab journeys (taxis will only grudgingly take you to South London, or not at all) to dinner party conversations. (“And how are you finding that, then?” an enquiry dripping with thinly veiled distaste, usually followed with the dismissive, “I can’t remember the last time I went to South London.” As if anyone would want to, voluntarily.) In response, generations of cartographers have recast the city’s shape as an abstraction. Harry Beck, creator of the original London Underground map, was most famous of all. Beck’s genius was to conflate distance and eliminate topography, creating a crisp diagram where before there was a colourful spaghetti of lines. All Londoners are now cursed by this dimensional confusion, with Beck’s Thames, shorn of bridges and rendered as a stylised set of right angles, serving only to deepen the psychological ravine between north and south. It’s easy to feel neglected, as the south has just 40 of the capital’s 287 tube stations. Amateur cartographers, presumably equally bitter, playfully invert the inequality that puts so many people off South London in the first place.

One’s perception of the city continues to shift throughout life. Once I’ve moved away from a neighborhood, it rapidly becomes alien, cloaked with nostalgia that blinds me to the lived reality—the great slabs of a housing estate seem mighty and romantic from the train, now that my neighbor’s constant demented screaming can no longer be heard through the walls. Passing through once-familiar streets in a car or on a bus swiftly eliminates the careful, more considered perspective of the pedestrian; I notice different things—the wallpaper in an upstairs room, or far-reaching views to a familiar landmark, things that change my memory of a scene. The city shifts yet again for the new parent, or so it seems, in a change that’s most noticeable than when I am on my own, away from my son. For the city proper is now a world for adults, serious and cold. Now that summer has finally left us, the gray faces and dark winter coats of the commuting masses make a journey that’s empty of any romance, functional and repetitive. Is this the world I have to prepare him for? Or is this simply a place I enter as part of my parental contract, a forced time-out from our relationship in order to gather and provide for him?

On becoming a father, I imagined the day I would push the boy into my office and introduce him to my colleagues. Now I realize that I too am allergic to bringing us both into the center of town. Call it fear, call it apathy; we’re just happier in our little concentric circles, a convenient half hour’s walking distance from home. So we trundle around our local area, between playgrounds, playgroups, supermarkets, clinics, and the local stores, walking streets I’ve never been down, finally visiting places I’ve only seen on maps just a short distance from home. I am creating a new mental landscape of my surroundings and things are shifting again.

I am developing a hair-trigger disaster sensor; dangers once dismissed as irrelevant are suddenly thrust into my consciousness: excess salt, airborne pollutants, chemical sensitivity, peanut allergies, dangerous dogs, cold spells, discarded cigarette butts.In the late 19th century, the philanthropist Charles Booth walked the newly industrialized city, carefully writing down what he saw. From his notebooks, Booth created a “poverty map” of London, setting out in stark red, blue, black, and white the deprivations and divisions of Victorian-era London. Booth color-coded every street, from a burnished yellow that represented the wealthy upper-middle classes to desperate black for the “lowest classes,” which he characterized as “vicious [and] semi-criminal” (race, it should be noted, was not a consideration). “Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink,” he noted. Re-visiting Booth’s maps (the set is available online) is to re-enter the past. London’s history is strong, but the absences are stronger, be they architectural or social, or the communities that melded both—the vast lost swath of working docks and warehouses, or the densely-packed down-at-heel terraces and glowering factories. Everywhere is marked by change and disappearance.

The rows of modest terraces are still around us, for the most part, with the occasional pair of meaner modern houses marking where a World War II bomb punched a hole in the precise Georgian, Victorian, or Edwardian streetscape. But within half a mile the cityscape has undergone many upheavals. Here the big houses once stood, owned by industrialists and politicians, with acres of grounds and far-reaching views across open countryside to the center of London. As the tide of smaller, slummier houses crept outward, borne along by the new railway network, rising land values wiped the mansions from the map, leaving German doodlebugs and the hard knocks of institutional life to destroy the rest. They’re almost all gone now, bulldozed into industrial parks, parking lots, and new housing estates, the street names occasionally evoking the grand houses of old, the occasional mighty tree the last remnant of a landscaped garden. I find it impossible not to consider this lost past as if it were a vanished childhood, a black and white evocation of things as they once were but which can never be revisited, only in the mind.

Booth’s maps might have charted savage divides, but they also represent an imaginary city of nostalgia, when children ran free and dirty-faced in dusty roads with scant traffic. Was this really paradise for a child? Nostalgia sugar-coats the past, a candy glaze that blurs the reality. The Victorians are often credited with “inventing” the concept of childhood, setting up artificial boundaries and distinctions that served to reinforce a worldview that valued both purity and the virtue of hardship. This was also a London of workhouses and reform schools, asylums and alms houses; away from the big houses and gardens, the life of a child could be far from idyllic. Admittedly the motor car had yet to change the dusty, broad streets from public spaces into a dangerous conduit for speeding metal and plastic, constricted by rows of tightly parked cars. A few months from now and I know my ambivalence about speed will have evaporated, as we start to impart the deadly serious life lesson of road sense into our unsteady yet inquisitive child, swift to dart into the welcomingly tight gap between two parked cars and then out into the road.

For now, the stroller is his enclosure, and it’s my responsibility not to poke its flimsy frame too far into the traffic. Another car zings past, the thud of bass rattling its windows. To cross this road I must backtrack over two pedestrian crossings; pushing a stroller out between tightly parked cars is hardly advisable. The Victorian image of road as dusty playground has vanished evaporated, along with other idyllic associations. Adolescence starts early, and what little innocence there once was swiftly evolves into savagery and guile. Children are the new enemy, the city’s most chaotic elements. One of Tony Blair’s legislative legacies will be the Anti-Social Behavior Orders, or ASBO, a legal restriction that courts can use to restrain and restrict an individual from committing certain activities. ASBOs have become a social Band-Aid, patched over bedevilled communities in the hope of re-establishing “decent behavior.” ASBOs are doled out enthusiastically, to the young, the old, the criminally insane, and the just plain eccentric, and “problem children” are singled out for particular vilification. The British media is awash with scare stories about threats to childhood, a litany of modern woes that includes killer bugs, deadly vaccines, malnutrition, imminent obesity, short attention spans, speeding drivers, failing schools, loitering pedophiles, trash television, poor role models, and on and on through Dantean circles of despair. Bad behavior is yet another threat, a social affliction that strikes at random, can’t be innoculated against, and brings a family shame and disrepute.

I am developing a hair-trigger disaster sensor; dangers once dismissed as irrelevant are suddenly thrust into my consciousness: excess salt, airborne pollutants, chemical sensitivity, peanut allergies, dangerous dogs, cold spells, discarded cigarette butts. Yet the city’s potential for death and destruction is not a pressing concern when I’m faced with the morass of negativity that surrounds the child in the city. Disaster comes in more forms than a badly placed glass coffee table, speeding car, or naked electrical socket. What if our son turns out bad and catches a dose of that highly contagious Anti-Social Behavior? Is the modern child allergic to the modern city? Perhaps. Out-of-towners—mostly family—constantly start faux-casual conversations about cheaper house prices in the suburbs, discretely trying to lever us out of our quasi-gentrified patch of inner city to somewhere calmer and closer, more certainty and less chaos.

Perhaps that’s what keeps us here: the romance of chance, with its accompanying perils, both real and imagined. The city still offers more, a landscape that will never be static yet always contains some traces of the past. The Situationist Guy Debord related how the French sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe once chronicled the patterns created by the movements of a student in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. Over the course of one year, the student diligently tracks back and forth between her lodgings, the School of Political Science, and her piano teacher, creating a thick black triangle of pathways on the map. The Situationists hoped to do away with such repetition and sameness, inventing the concept of the chance encounter created by a random path—the derivé, or “drift.” We don’t so much drift as trundle, but right now every journey offers something new. And the novelty will only increase. While I think of the vanished lives, the changed surroundings, the farms, inns, pubs, stables, even picture houses and tram depots that have all found themselves surplus to modern life, subsumed by changing needs and the grand ideas of urban reformers, my son sees a thousand things for the very first time. When he’s older, there’ll be so much to show him, so many questions to answer, so many things to point out, and so much knowledge to impart. His London will—inevitably—be different to mine. But whether it’s for better or for worse is something over which I have no control.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell